I. On February 27, 1999 Helen and I attended the Foster-Walker dorm formal at Comiskey Park (as it was called then) in Chicago. I was a senior and she was a sophomore at Northwestern. We'd known each other for almost a year, and briefly dated the previous spring. But with this date we officially became a couple.
That September I briefly went to Turkmenistan--one of the "Stans" carved out of the former USSR--ostensibly to join the US Peace Corps. I'd begun the Peace Corps application process in January 1999, before becoming serious with Helen. I carried forth with this process even after things were very serious indeed (we first said that we loved each other on May 12, 1999, after a perfect walk along Sheridan Road to the Baha'i House of Worship.) My heart wasn't in it because I didn't want to be apart from Helen, but it seemed distasteful to walk away from the Peace Corps. So I ended up going all the way to Turkmenistan, realizing how miserable I was, and coming back to the US...all in 72 hours. I had no job (but eventually found a great job at the Massage Therapy Foundation in Evanston) and began living illegally out of Helen's Northwestern dorm room. I'd graduated the year before, and did eventually find an apartment in Chicago.
On February 27, 2000 we had dinner at Geja's in Chicago. Thus began our tradition of sumptuous dinners to celebrate this special day. On the train ride home I proposed to Helen, completely spontaneously, standing outside at the Howard St. El stop as we waited for the Purple line to take us back to Evanston. It was cold, but the heating lamps worked. (I didn't have a ring, and had to save up for it for the next several months.) Helen said yes.
On February 27, 2001 we were married in a civil ceremony in Cook County performed by Judge Adam D. Bourgeois Jr. (who went on to have his judicial license suspended in 2004.) This was a rather plain ceremony, and upon conclusion Helen pointed out that we were "stuck," always to be together. I thought this was cute at the time, but in retrospect "stuck" wasn't the most romantic of all possible words.
Six months later, on September 1, we had a wonderfully romantic wedding celebration where family and friends gathered together. We wrote our own vows, selected poems to be read in a sequence to represent the life cycle of a marriage, asked our musically gifted friends to lend their talents to the evening, and even choreographed our own dance to James Taylor's song "How Sweet it is to be Loved by You." Va Pensiero, a 5 star restaurant in Evanston, was our restaurant of choice.
Our vows were written in large part to acknowledge that marriage is difficult but precious, and penned on one glorious afternoon in Evanston in the summer of 2001:
"I will treasure your unique perspective and personality.
"I will always appreciate your love, as well as the many ways you express it.
"I will be committed to our marriage, especially during difficult times.
"I will strive to keep passion in the life we share.
"And finally, I will support your dreams, and work toward our dreams together."
The wedding ceremony was magical--absolutely unique, if for no other reason than that we were already married! In addition to the vows, we wrote a "Lover's Conversation" to explain how we had fallen in love and to reaffirm our lifelong commitment to each other. (The conversation is here.) Helen's parents and grandmother came from Hong Kong, and our friends and family came from around the country. As it turned out, it took place just ten days before the September 11 attacks, the day that Helen's family was supposed to fly home. They were stranded in the US for several days. Looking back, it's hard not to see the wedding ceremony as taking place in a more innocent time when the biggest concern was that I needed to run home to get the credit card to pay the bill at the end of the night.
Although Sep. 1, 2001 was a glorious day, Sep. 1 wasn't our legal anniversary. So we soon settled into a gluttonous pattern of marking the occasion by eating at one of the best restaurants in whatever city we were living in at the time. After I discovered blogging, I marked these occasions every year: 2005 , 2006 , 2007 , 2008.
In 2009 there won't be any anniversary dinner--nothing to blog about--because Helen and I are in the process of getting a divorce. Those precociously mature wedding vows (I was 24, Helen 21 when we wrote them) didn't prove binding forever.
II. Requests for dissolution filed in Alameda County--presumably in all of California, but I'm not sure--only provide two options for why you're taking this step: "irreconcilable differences" or "incurable insanity." You can only check one. I laughed at the fact that I could have chosen insanity, but checked the irreconcilable differences box.
Both options include a citation to the relevant portion of the California code, so you can look up what they mean if you want to. But the concept of irreconcilable differences is plain enough; two people with such different goals in life, or such little shared sense of what it means to live a good life, that soldiering on is pointless. As I've often thought since we decided to get a divorce, I'd rather that we both be happy apart than neither of us be happy together.
But why? Weren't we a great couple? Yes, I think, we were an extremely unique pair that proved the old adage that opposites attract. We like different movies, different TV shows, and have different interests. So we were thrilled to discover a shared bond with the old ABC TV show "The Practice," which we started watching when we still had rabbit ears.
Dogging us through all these years were much more fundamental differences than TV or movies. Helen never wants to settle down in one place, I want to eventually have roots somewhere (and the Bay Area is a great place to land, both professionally and personally.) As long ago as when we lived in Evanston I attended a workshop about how to run for local government office; I was not very serious about doing this, but the idea of making a difference in the community was deeply compelling. To do that, though, you need to stick around somewhere for a while.
We've never stayed in one place very long, from the time we left Chicago for Washington DC until now. For that entire period, though, it always "worked." The National Library of Medicine fellowship in Washington DC was two years, with a firm ending date. This was a good reason to move up to New York (although I did resist leaving DC, because we left just as we were becoming rooted.) The three years in NYC were magical; I will always love New York. But Helen got into Berkeley, an amazing MBA program all the way across the country. Meanwhile I landed what was by far the most important professional position I've held to date, at the UCSF Library. It was an easy choice, really.
Now Helen is approaching her MBA graduation date, and the old travel bug has surfaced again. She went to London last fall for a semester abroad, and from my perspective didn't really want to come back. Helen and I met up in NYC a week before Thanksgiving last year, which was a chance to meet in the middle between London and Berkeley and to see some old friends. But I felt a distance that weekend. We were fine among groups of friends, but has very little to talk about when it was just the two of us.
Then, our European jaunt over the holidays--the most ambitious trip we'd ever taken, which we discussed as a much delayed honeymoon--confirmed that something had changed. We generally bickered and had a thoroughly miserable time, despite my lighthearted blog posts that made it seem like life was perfect. I traveled all around Europe wondering why she hated me.
I don't think it's hate, just a profound and permanent distance that must be acknowledged. Helen and I began dating when she was 18 and were married when she was 20. This is quite young, and she told me last month that she wanted to be single. I made some brief noises about getting a trial separation, but within days I knew that a full divorce would be better for me too. Now I no longer have to pretend (to myself and to her) that I want to keep marching around the world, and I can get busy planting those roots in San Francisco. Helen's going back to London by the end of May, with or without a job.
And oh...I really want to be a parent. That issue was rapidly becoming a larger facet of those irreconcilable differences.
So in the end, Helen's desire for divorce was shocking but not surprising. Some things aren't worth saving, no matter how much they were once worth. These tough issues--settling down vs. moving, parenting or not--were always stealthy companions in what was a happy relationship for many years. I thought time was on my side here, because my desires were more typical of what people come to want as they get older.
I was wrong.
III. In the midst of this tumult, and perhaps not coincidentally, I've become a passionate fan of Annie Dillard. A passage from her autobiography, An American Childhood, has resonated with me deeply in recent weeks:
"So the Midwest nourishes us...and presents us with the spectacle of a land and a people completed and certain. And so we run to our bedrooms and read in a fever, and love the big hardwood trees outside the windows, and the terrible Midwest summers, and the terrible Midwest winters...And so we leave it sorrowfully, having grown strong and restless by opposing with all our will and mind and muscle its simple, loving, single will for us: that we stay, that we stay and find a place among its familiar possibilities."
I'm a child of the Midwest with great fondness for those growing up years. There really is something to the cliche that Columbus, Ohio and cities like it are a "good place to raise a family." So I know what Dillard is talking about, and am grateful that growing up in "the heartland" was the foundation for my life.
But I also know that Annie Dillard left the Midwest and didn't go back. For a certain type of person, those "familiar possibilities" become constraining rather than comforting. Life must be challenging and risky to be its most rewarding, and you're not as likely to find these attributes among well-traveled paths.
I'm not sure that I was such a person when I left Ohio to go to Northwestern (still in the Midwest, but at least a place where you didn't need a car to get around, an amazing novelty to me at the time.) But I've taken many risks since meeting Helen, and with her I've seen much more of the world than I would have ever thought possible when I was growing up.
Now that lure of the familiar is calling, although like Annie Dillard I'm not going home to find it. In SF the larger world is close by and the warmth I remember from Ohio is just as readily at hand.
I wouldn't be here in the Bay Area without Helen--in the trivial sense of her acceptance to Berkeley's MBA program, sure, but also in the more profound sense of the type of life we led together to make it to this point. Sometimes I'm angry about how things turned out, and have a hard time acknowledging that anger. Sometimes I'm sad, which is much easier for me to admit.
Ultimately, though, I'm aiming for gratitude about the relationship we've had over all these years. I think I'll get there.